MADRID • After making their best start to a season since they last won the La Liga title in 2013-14, Atletico Madrid can consolidate their early promise and twist the knife into their city rivals when they visit Real Madrid today.
Victory will send the leaders nine points clear of the fourth-placed defending champions (20) on top of having a game in hand, sending out the clearest message yet that they mean business this campaign.
In 2014, Atletico became the first club in 10 years to break up the duopoly of Real and Barcelona in La Liga. Diego Simeone's men, however, have not been able to build on their Spanish league title success since, despite maintaining their place in the top four.
But following an uncharacteristically quiet summer that saw Real fail to make any signings for the first time in 40 years, while Barca had to offload high earners like Luis Suarez because of the coronavirus pandemic, Atletico appear far more equipped for a title tilt than Spain's big two.
They are the only unbeaten side in La Liga - their last defeat was on Feb 1 by Real, dating back 26 games - and they have scored more goals per game than anyone else while conceding only twice in 10 matches.
Atletico have also shed their reputation as a conservative side focused only on defence and now boast an offence comprising Joao Felix, Suarez, Marcos Llorente and Yannick Carrasco.
Their attacking approach has helped them find solutions in tight games, extending their winning streak in La Liga to seven, yet their backline remains as tight as ever with a league-leading eight clean sheets.
That consistency, including beating Barca in the league for the first time in a decade, has contrasted with Real's stuttering title defence, as Zinedine Zidane's side have lost three times already in the league and have just one victory from their past four games.
The ban on fans attending games has also allowed Simeone to show he is more than just an animated cheerleader on the sideline and prove he is a coach who harnesses real improvement in players.
Llorente is a case in point. Considered surplus to requirements at Real, he made the decision to cross the Madrid divide last summer.
Simeone has since turned him from a holding midfielder into a forward and the switch is paying dividends with four league goals and a maiden Spain cap this term.
Still, he knows the hosts remain a team who can deliver when their backs are against the wall, having already beaten Barca, Inter Milan twice, and Sevilla this season.
Urging his side to keep their feet on the ground even if they lay down a marker, Simeone said ahead of the game at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium: "I don't consider it to be the end (of the title race) with so many match days to go.
"Madrid are an excellent team, they understand their players so well and always thrive when the pressure is on."
Real are still missing Eden Hazard and Federico Valverde but otherwise have a full squad to pick from, while Atletico will be without Jose Gimenez and Diego Costa.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
REAL V ATLETICO
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